Visiting Rome’s Santa Maria in Trastevere

We didn’t mean to visit Santa Maria, or Our Lady in Trastevere, when we did; we were just looking for good food in the Trastevere (“across the Tiber”) neighborhood. Eventually we would have found our way to it, but hungry as we were when we walked by, I simply couldn’t help myself. I had to go in.

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A minor basilica, Santa Maria in Trastevere probably doesn’t top many lists of things to do in Rome, but I think there are many reasons one should see it. First of all, its age: at nearly a millennium old it is a wonderful representative of a late-Byzantine era building in Italy.

By the time it was built in the early 12th century, Constantinople had no real authority over Rome. One pope had even given away the title of “Roman Emperor” to Charlemagne. Then again, while I appreciate Charlemagne for the things that he was, when I make that list, Roman Emperor does not find a spot. And even Santa Maria helps reveal the still-impressive cultural weight of the Roman Empire centered in Constantinople: its interior decoration is absolutely beholden to the Byzantine masters. Those mosaics on the apse semidome would have looked at home anywhere in the medieval Byzantine Empire. (So would the mosaics in Charlemagne’s own cathedral in Aachen, but that’s a story for another day.)

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As you visit, make note of the layout; it’s archetypal Roman basilica, and you’ll see the same all over Rome. In fact, the current church’s columns are laid on the foundations of the earlier church at this site, built in the fourth century. These columns, by the way, are spolia taken from the Baths of Caracalla; their capitals don’t match. The mosaics are from the late 1200s, and the ceiling painting of the Assumption is late Renaissance.

When Rome was re-expanding in the Renaissance, after a long period of relative moribundity, Trastevere was not a nice place to be. Its narrow and winding streets contrasted sharply with the wide avenues and monumental architecture of Renaissance Rome. Nowadays, however, travelers seeking a unique, well-aged, and slightly bohemian style will seek out Trastevere, as will middle-class natives looking to avoid the sprawl of suburban Rome.

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Trastevere is a wonderful place to lose yourself among confusing cobbled streets, ancient buildings, and chic, modern bars and restaurants. If you find yourself in Trastevere while visiting Rome – and you most likely will – Santa Maria is certainly worth a look. Don’t forget the church on your way to the pizzeria.

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